There is a fungus among us as we trudge through the backwoods of the Hocking Hills region with amateur mycologist Andrea Moore. We just have to find it.
Moore, an active member of the Ohio Mushroom Society, occasionally leads one of the group’s guided forays into the woods to seek out the season’s edibles. In late April and early May, there’s a good chance you’ll find fungi, not to mention fiddleheads, wild garlic and ramps, popping up through ground cover on the forest floor. Finding them is a bit like a treasure hunt. Morels, in particular, are coveted by mushroom foragers and chefs simply because of how mysterious and elusive they can be. That’s also why they cost at least $25-70 per pound.
I already have deep respect for mushrooms, which has kept me from picking them on my own. After all, I’ve always been told eating the wrong one can kill you. False morels, for example, contain mono methyl hydrazine (MMH), which is the same chemical found in rocket fuel. I prefer to leave blast-offs to NASA and not have one burst from my insides after consuming the wrong variety. Beyond dizziness and vomiting, false morels, such as the Gyromitra, species, can have a far worse outcome.
This should be reason enough to go mushroom hunting with someone like Andrea, who knows what she is doing. She starts her spiel with the No. 1 rule: no poaching. “Make sure you have permission from property owners,” she says. In Ohio, you can legally forage mushrooms at any State Forest, State Wildlife Management Area, and the Wayne National Forest. Some Ohio state parks will allow it, but not all, so it’s best to call ahead first.
Just before we head out into the woods, she dons a bright orange vest. Some parks that condone foraging also allow game hunting—and it’s turkey season. In fact, we have already heard a few gunshots in the distance. “You don’t want to be confused for a turkey,” she says, “although I don’t understand how we could be.”
When she picks up her basket and starts heading down the trail, Andrea resembles a modern version of Little Red Riding Hood setting off to grandmother’s house. Unlike the fairytale character, Andrea has a big knife in that basket, all the better to harvest edibles with.
We only go a few feet before she starts to point out all sorts of edible and medicinal plants. Sweet Cicely, chickweed, plantains (not the banana) and dandelions, for example, are all commonly found in our lawns and flower beds, yet most of us consider them weeds and pull them or spray them with chemicals.
“I go out and eat half the weeds in the garden,” says Andrea. “Most of the time they are more nutritious than what I’m trying to grow.”
After about an hour, we still haven’t found the coveted morels. “I walk about 300 miles in a season and there are days you don’t find anything,” she says. “It takes some effort fighting briars, brambles, and ticks.”
To increase our chances for finding fungi, Andrea tells us to look for elm, ash, or sycamore trees that are dead or dying and then follow their root systems. Healthy tulip trees are the exception, as morels have a unique relationship with them. Everyone in the group spread out to poke around, carefully watching where we put our feet. It soon dawned on us that it’s impossible not to step on something edible in the forest.
We had just about given up on our search, when Andrea says she thinks there might be one more place to look. Her eagle eye spots them, but she’s not about to tell us where they are. “You have to find them yourself,” she says.
Someone yells out, “Here’s one!” Everyone gathers around to look at the wrinkly fungus, noting how its color is camouflaged by last season’s brown fallen leaves. “Here’s another one,” someone else exclaims. We find three in all. Moore hands me the knife and I kneel down to slice one of the morels from its stem, then I pick up the precious find and place it in the basket.
It’s certainly a lot of work to find such a small number of morels—and it’s not enough to feed everyone in our group—but it certainly gives us a better appreciation for the art of foraging and why morels fetch top dollar.
Upcoming “mini” forays led by members of the Ohio Mushroom Society
Saturday, May 5, 10 am
West Branch State Park
Contact Bryan Lewis at email@example.com or 917.475.6135 for more information.
Sunday, May 6, 2 pm
Contact Walt Sturgeon at firstname.lastname@example.org to register.
Wayne National Forest
This is part of the Wayne National Forest Bioblitz in partnership with Rural Action. Contact Martha Bishop at email@example.com or 740.593.4552 for more information.
Saturday, June 2, 10 am–2:30pm
Mushroom foray in conjunction with a BioBlitz sponsored by the Ohio Wetlands Association. Contact Shirley McClelland at 740.215.5883 to register.
Sunday, June 24, 10:30 am–1 pm
Contact Pete Richards at firstname.lastname@example.org to register.
Check OhioMushroom.org for the most up-to-date information.
—Story and Photos by Laura Watilo Blake